Clethra alnifolia is more commonly known by its many descriptive names of Summersweet, Sweet Pepperbush, and Honeysweet. In an old book on fragrance, written by Louise Beebe Wilder, she writes that in Gloucester of old it was described as ‘Sailor’s Delight.’ During the 19th and early 20th century, as told by Wilder, the sailors entering the harbor on homebound ships would reportedly delight in its fragrance wafting out to see.
Much of Niles Pond road is to this day lined with great thickets of ‘Sailor’s Delight.’ Wild Clethra growing on Cape Ann blooms during the month of August.
The following is an excerpt from a book that I wrote back in 2004-2007, which was published by David R. Godine in 2009. The book is about designing landscape habitats for wild creatures and for people, titled Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities: Notes from a Gloucester Garden, and all that I wrote then, still holds true to day.
“Summersweet bears small white florets held on racemes, and depending on the cultivar may be shaded with varying hues of pink to rose-red. The tapering spires of fragrant blossoms appear in mid to late summer. Clethra has a sweet and spicy though somewhat pungent aroma, and when the summer air is sultry and humid, the fragrance permeates the garden, Summersweet is a nectar food attractive to bees and a wide variety of butterflies, notably the Silver-spotted Skipper.” See more at Oh GardenMyriad species of bees and butterflies, along with Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, are attracted to Clethra for its sweet nectar, while American Robins, Goldfinches and warblers dine on Summersweet’s ripened berries. Clethra fruits ripening
Our fall pollinator gardens are a rich tapestry of expiring stalks, fresh blossoms of asters and goldenrods, fading blossoms of garden favorites, and vibrant annuals getting a second wind after the intense heat of summer. Blooming in a medley of of rose and dusty pink hues, violet, purple, crimson, rusty red, yellowed greens, Spanish orange, golden yellow–the colors are made more vivid in the atmospheric glow of autumn’s light.
Monarchs, Sulphurs, Painted Ladies, American Ladies, Swallowtails, and Buckeyes are just some of the butterflies on the wing, hungrily seeking nectar to sustain their journeys. Not to be forgotten are a host of songbirds, and too, honey bees and native bees, all also in need of sustenance.
Tips for early fall maintenance, with pollinators in mind.
1) Tidy-up anything that looks really raggedy, but leave the tall dry stalks of plants such as sunflowers, Joe-pye, Echinacea, and Rudbeckia. The stalks provide winter shelter for many species of bees.
2) Dead head plants such as Butterfly Bushes and Mexican Sunflowers (Tithonia), which encourages continued bloom.
3) No need to bother deadheading Zinnias and Cosmos as they will flower whether or not the expired blooms are removed. The seed heads provide food for Goldfinches, Nuthatches, and many species of resident and migrating songbirds.
4) Don’t forget to provide blossoms and sugar water for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Our annually returning female and her 2018 brood of two has departed for the season, but we have been daily visited by southward migrating RTHummers.
Even on a cloudy October day our front dooryard garden at the Mary Prentiss Inn is abuzz with blossoms and pollinators. The Monarch nectaring at the Tithonia was the first to greet me while checking on the garden.
Bees, butterflies, and songbirds bring a garden to life, with their grace in movement and ephemeral beauty.
Many of the plants that are the most highly attractive to butterflies are also the most appealing to bees, too!
Bees are also a “keystone organism,” which means they are critical to maintaining the sustainability and productivity of many types of ecosystems. Without bees, most flowering plants would become extinct, and fruit and seed eating birds and mammals (such as ourselves) would have a much less healthy and varied diet.
Native bees come in an array of beautiful colors, size, and shapes. Some are as small as one eighth of an inch and others as large as one inch. They may wear striped suits of orange, red, yellow, or white, or shimmer in coats of metallic iridescene. Their names often reflect the way in which they build their nests, for example, carpenter bees, leafcutter bees, mason bees, plasterer bees, digger bees, and wool carder bees.
Approximately 4,000 species of native bees have been identified north of Mexico. They are extremely efficient pollinators of tomatoes, apples, berries, pumpkins, watermelons, and many other crops.
Native Carpenter Bee and Apricot Tree
Listed below are what I have found to be the most successful tips for supporting and attracting native bees to your garden.
1). Choose plants native to North America. Over millennia, native bees have adapted to native plants. If planting a non-native plant, do not plant invasive aliens, only well-behaved ornamentals.
2). Choose non-chemical solutions to insect problems, in other words, do not use herbicides or pesticides.
3). Choose plants that have a variety of different flowers shapes to attract a variety of bees, both long-tongued and short-tongued bees.
4). Avoid “fancy” plants, the hybrids that have been deveolped with multiple double frilly layers. This only confuses bees when they are looking for nectar and gathering pollen.
5). Provide a succession of nectar-rich and pollen bearing blooms throughout the growing season. Select plants that flower during the earliest spring, during the summer months, and until the first hard frost.
6.) Plant a clover lawn, or throw some clover seed onto your existing grass lawn to create a mixed effect.
7.) Bee Friendly–bees only sting when provoked. When encountering an angry bee, stay calm and walk away slowly.
8.) Plant lots of blue, purple, and yellow flowers, a bees favorite colors.
9). Provide a source of pesticide-free water and mud in your bee paradise.
The first nine tips are for any garden, large or small. The last is for people with larger land areas.
10). Establish hedgerows, or clumps of native woody shrubs and trees, and wildflower fields. Contact the USDA NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Services) for available funding opportunities.
Tomorrow I’ll post our top ten native plants for attracting and supporting native bees.
One of the most elegant of all native trees is the not-widely planted Cornus alternifolia, or Pagoda Dogwood. Where ever I plant this tree of uncommon grace and beauty it becomes a magnet for all manner of bees and butterflies.